Organization Spotlight: The Food Chain Workers Alliance

So we live in a world where vertically integrated sectors are standard, where many of the same companies hold power throughout a supply chain.  So shouldn’t workers in this supply chain be talking to each other?  Well, the agro-food system they’re starting to! In this post I’ll be looking at the Food Chain Workers Alliance which states its mission as:

A coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. The Alliance was founded in July 2009. The Alliance works together to build a more sustainable food system that respects workers’ rights, based on the principles of social, environmental and racial justice, in which everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. Continue reading

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Farmworkers Challenge JP Morgan Chase

You might think it would be a bit tricky to draw connections between farmworkers and big finance moguls like Chase and JP Morgan (now JP Morgan Chase) – but it’s a lot easier than you would think.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC – know for their transnational H2A worker organizing model and winner of a MacArthur genius award) continued their campaign against JP Morgan Chase.  So why are they doing this?  Well, for the past X years FLOC has been running a campaign against Reynolds Tobacco (one of the largest tobacco companies in North Carolina) to recognize the union that workers on their tobacco farms are calling for.  For those who don’t know, tobacco is one of the most dangerous crops to pick due to the prevelance of Green tobacco sickness (nicotine poisoning through the skin) which is experienced at least once in a growing season by 24% of tobacco workers. In just one day, workers can absorb the amount of nicotine found in 36 cigarettes.

Continue reading

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The Perils of H-2A Workers: F.L.O.C. Works Against Danger on Both Sides of the Border

One might imagine that having a legal avenue to work in the United States would provide great benefits and security over the myriad challenges faced by undocumented workers who come to the U.S. But stories from U.S. fields and from guest workers’ hometowns abroad reveal that H-2A workers face great vulnerabilities.

There are approximately 30,000 farm workers currently in the United States working under temporary worker visas (H-2A visas). H-2A visas are awarded to “non-immigrant” workers abroad who have been sponsored by a U.S. employer who has proved unable to find U.S. citizens to employ. H-2A visas are valid for up to 364 days. Employers can reapply yearly to bring workers back for seasonal work.  This arrangement may seem benign, but the power dynamics between employer and worker all too often play out in ugly ways. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers translates the problems with the program below:

Guestworkers remain in the country only at the pleasure of their employer, they cannot change jobs, and they are obliged to return to their home country once their employer is finished with them, or face deportation. This arrangement places a tremendous amount of power over workers’ lives in the hands of their employers, and in agriculture, this has frequently resulted in cases of extreme exploitation.

A specific case of exploitation that this statement alludes to is a slavery ring discovered this September that operated in over a dozen states and exploited 400 Thai H-2A workers. It is the largest human trafficking case to ever be prosecuted in the United States.  Multiple other agricultural slavery cases that the CIW has helped to prosecute over the last decade have involved victims who came to the U.S. under H-2A status. The tip of the iceberg rule applies to these cases. For every slavery case successfully prosecuted, it’s guaranteed that many more go undetected. These horrible cases also point to a spectrum of mistreatment that many H2-A workers face. Slavery is the worst result, but many H2-A workers report less severe but still problematic conditions while in the U.S. Often promised wages are withheld or reduced, many times workers are forced to pay their employers exorbitant rates for transportation and housing.

And H2-A workers often face exploitation before arriving in the U.S. The recruitment process provides ample opportunity to take advantage of workers unfamiliar with their rights and unknowledgeable about the country in which they hope to find work. In the case of the slavery ring prosecuted this year in Honolulu, the FBI found that the organization running the ring falsely promised Thai workers high wages and convinced many to “mortgage their homes or farms in Thailand to pay the company anywhere from $9,000 to $21,000 to secure them jobs in the United States.” Middlemen coercing workers into paying stiff fees for H-2A visas has become all too common practice.

Defending Workers Across the Boarder

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has organized workers in the Midwest since the late 1960’s and has come to realize that the problems that many immigrant farm workers face are transnational problems that require organizing effort spread across boarders.  In addition to its union work and boycott campaigns in the U.S., FLOC has begun organizing H-2A workers in Mexico before they come to the United States. By cutting out the often-exploitative middleman in the visa process, FLOC is able to protect workers by informing them of their rights and providing a community of support once they come to the U.S. This strategy helps to work against the great isolation and powerlessness that many H-2 workers face once they are in the U.S. This organizing model provides a strategy for thinking broadly and creatively about how to shape and empower the agrarian work force that is becoming increasingly international.

To read a good article about H-2A workers, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.

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Farming a Desert

I remember my shock when, as a ten-year-old, I realized that my summer home state of California was both a producer of fruit and vegetables and a desert- complete with cacti. It took me a long time to accept that people would so obviously defy nature in turning a desert into farmland, and go through so much trouble piping water in from other states.

Desert farming takes place all over the world, I later found out, from California to India to Saudi Arabia to Australia. A New York Times video clip entitled “Farming the Desert” speaks about an initiative underway in Egypt to boost agricultural output.

Farmers in the Nile Delta have always dealt with environmental problems, but in recent years they have faced a different kind of calamity. Cairo’s urban sprawl is eating up a lot of otherwise arable land. Some small-scale farmers are forced to work on fields surrounded by houses with no immediate sources of water. Egypt’s population boom is very much to blame for these problems, and the region is now importing about half its food. The 2008 spikes in global food prices made the need for increased domestic production clear.

Deep in the Sahara Desert, where temperatures can top 110 degrees, lies a green oasis called Toshka, which is one of Egypt’s solutions to domestic demand for lower food prices. With a lot of fertilizer and water pumped over more than 150 miles of canals, officials hope that Toshka farms will be the answer to their constituents’ grief. When the Toshka farm project was revealed, officials said it would be an accomplishment on par with the pyramids. So far only 30 thousand acres have been planted, nowhere near the half-million planned. This government-supported initiative has been criticized as an unwise use of limited water resources.

In neighboring Israel, where modern drip-irrigation was invented, desert farming has a slightly different meaning, according to another New York Times clip entitled, “The Risks of Desert Farming.” The country has embraced desalinated ocean water for irrigation, as well as recycled sewage water. Some farmers have become so successful that Israel has become one of the world’s leading greenhouse food exporting countries. The government is planning on expanding desalination and sewage recycling projects so that Israel can have all the water it needs by 2013, making it impervious to the threats of drought that make desert farming most risky.

With desertification both from unsustainable farming practices and global climate change, questions and challenges of desert farming must be focused on worldwide so that when necessary, it will be possible for nations to claim any lands that are, or can be made, arable. It is primarily in the Global South that these problems have arisen, and many lives depend upon their being successfully addressed.


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Bird Flu’s Impact on Farmers

Bird Flu, just like Swine Flu, was been highlighted in the media because of its dangers to human life. As such, around 2005 when the avian influenza was spreading across Asia and into many countries in Africa, news of flocks being culled were greeted with approval and relief. Though the threat of H5N1 has receded, the impact of the pandemic around 5 years ago still resonated with small-scale farmers across Asian and Africa. To find out more I looked at a study on Vietnam conducted by Agrifood Consulting International.

The Avian Influenza strain H5N1 hit Vietnam in 2003, with outbreaks all the way until 2005. These outbreaks took a toll on human health, to be sure, but also on the livelihoods of more than 9 million farm households as well as other stakeholders in Vietnam’s poultry sector. Economic costs of the flu include costs associated with the disease itself and its containment, but also with the restructuring of the sector in response to the outbreaks.

Agriculture accounted for 20% of Vietnam’s GDP in 2004, with 22% of that being livestock. Poultry is the country’s second most important meat, and has, recently, been a growing sector. It is especially important to Vietnam’s poor. The low cost of raising poultry and the immediate cash that selling poultry products brings to families plays a role in poverty reduction. This is especially important for women, and among the 12 million farming households in Vietnam, about 70% keep poultry.

Even before H5N1, there have always been tremendous challenges for small-scale farmers when trying to produce for high-value markets. For example, as suppliers to supermarkets, small producers face problem meeting quality and volume requirements. Vietnam’s poor also will be hurt by the shift towards commercial forms of production because they will not be able to access high-value outlets like supermarkets.

Avian Influenza (AI) and ensuing regulations without a doubt led to a dampening of the market, but with some producers affected more than others. Since 2005 there has been a shift to large-scale production, with semi-commercial and traditional farmers being marginalized from markets they could previously access. This shift has also had a spill-over effect on small-scale traders, slaughterers and suppliers. Needless to say, the financial losses have been comparatively larger for small-scale producers than commercial stakeholders. The reason for this shift is that the risk to health is much higher for these small-scale productions than for large. The current restructuring of the sector is, unfortunately, not taking into consideration this shift and is not aimed at helping small-scale producers rebuild.


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The Future of Rice in Japan

Most Japanese people, myself included, find Japanese rice to be far superior in taste to any other kind. Rice being the staple grain in Japan, with the majority of people eating it at least once a day, and many at every meal, the thought of replacing Japanese rice with a foreign breed is unthinkable. But that is just what may happen in the coming years. Rice farming in Japan has become a dwindling business, and if more social value and government funds are not put into the agricultural sector, prospects for maintaining this aspect of culture in everyday life are bleak.

Currently, virtually all rice in Japan is home-grown. This is for the most part due to quotas and high tariffs on foreign rice, which some nations complain violate free trade laws. It is estimated that without such restriction on foreign rice imports, US exports to Japan could amount to $656 million per year.

Maintaining rice production in the mountainous landscape of Japan is difficult. What has become even more pressing in recent years, however, has been the dwindling population of rice farmers. A recent New York Times article entitled “Japan’s Rice Farmers Fear their Future is Shrinking” cited several of the problems Farmers are being confronted with. With 70% of the three million farmers being 60 or older, Japanese agriculture had “no money, no youth, no future” in the words of Hitoshi Suzuki, owner of his families 450-year-old farm.

Japan’s shrinking population and soaring deficits are affecting all sectors, but especially agriculture, where farmers depend on government subsidies to survive. The rural economic system of small family farms is terribly inefficient and there is little incentive for young people to remain in their ancestral country homes when much more lucrative jobs are abundant in cities. Urban expansion around major cities like Yokohama, my hometown, are shrinking farmland acre by acre.

The predicament is this: the Japanese government no longer has the economic power to subsidize farmers as heavily as needed. If Japanese farmers continue to be unable to meet the market’s demands, the government ma be forced to lower trade barriers and allow rice from the US and also China to flood the market. This, however, is a death sentence for Japan’s farmers, who, though few in number, form the base of the Liberal Democratic Party’s support. Though there are no simple answers, this is a question of national importance, and as such efforts to sustain Japanese cultural cuisine will not be abandoned.


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Africa: Our Future Bread-Basket

More than one in seven people in the world go hungry, despite there being enough food produced to adequately feed all. With world’s population expected to expand to more than nine billion by 2050, global food production will need to increase by 70-100 percent. This means that more food will have to produced on the same amount of land and with less water.

The US, Brazil, China and India have all become major producers in the world, but there is little that can be done to increase production in these countries. As such, more and more attention is being turned to Africa, what Robert Thurow calls in his article in Foreign Affairs, “The Fertile Continent.” In this article, he argues that agricultural production could grow exponentially if farmers used existing technology such as hybrid seeds and modern irrigation systems.

A primary reason agriculture in Africa is underdeveloped today is its comparative advantage in terms of labor. When production in the US lowered prices of staple grains, African farmers could not compete. Thus African governments turned their attention and funds away from farmers and focused on manufacturing, taking advantage of cheap labor. This resulted in imported crops displacing locally grown foods in the developing world.

Then came the global food crisis of 2008. Between 2007 and 2008, global grain reserves fell to their lowest levels in three decades, and the prices of staple products rose exponentially. Suddenly, the food that developing countries had been importing for cheap prices became too expensive and even to scarce.

The way out, many governments and international actors have realized, is to develop agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2009, G-8 countries pledged $22 billion to agricultural development in the world’s poorest countries. Developing infrastructure that is common elsewhere such as farm-to-market roads and crop-storage facilities is essential on a continent where one third to one half of harvested crops are routinely spoiled. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if a green revolution were to ignite in Africa, agricultural output could increase from the current value of $280 billion to $880 billion.

Naturally, a lot needs to change for such results. Not a single green revolution, but one for each ecological zone and each staple crop would be needed, as well as political and social stability in each region. But it is becoming increasingly clear that it is in every nation’s interest to develop agriculture in Africa. The continent that was once the biggest receiver of food aid must now rise to the task of feeding a growing world.

This blog post was based off the article entitled “The Fertile Continent” by Robert Thurow, which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.


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