Human Rights and Agriculture: Issues in Today’s Food Chain

Human Rights Issues and the Modern Food Chain

By Amanda Winstead

When tackling the ethics of the modern food chain, many experts emphasize the importance of sustainability, and with good reason. Climate change is a pressing issue that every business in the food industry needs to address. However, a truly ethical food chain requires more than eco-friendly practices. It also requires the humane treatment of workers throughout the entire supply chain, from production to distribution.

It’s no secret that human labor is often exploited in supply chains around the world. In both developing and developed nations, not every company implements fair labor practices. Food in our local grocery stores — in many cases, even the organic ones that attract eco-conscious consumers — is often affected by inequalities at some point before it hits the shelves.

We’ll explore how workers in the food industry are often mistreated, as well as how consumers and businesses alike can play a role in fighting the human rights issues that plague it.

Common Labor Law Violations in the Food Chain

Human rights issues are common in the supply chain, particularly in countries where regulations may not be fully developed or enforced. One common problem in impoverished communities is the use of child labor, often in unsafe working conditions and sometimes as a result of human trafficking. For instance, widely-known companies, such as Nestlé and Mars, have used child slavery and exploitation to save money while sourcing and creating their products.

Even if they don’t engage in exploitation or slavery, some companies choose to outsource their production processes to developing countries to take advantage of low wages in the area. Unfortunately, these low wages don’t always reflect living wages. Plus, since many agricultural jobs are labor-intensive, workers may put in many hours of hard labor for little reward. These low wages can stunt the development of entire communities.

To avoid supporting these unethical practices, consumers must increasingly choose brands that offer more transparency about the labor that powers their supply chain. Even if companies were only unintentionally supporting unfair or illegal labor practices, the rise in demand for ethical goods will encourage them to carefully choose and manage their supply chain partners.

Human Rights and Agriculture: Farm workers in a field

Worker Exploitation Occurs Everywhere

While it’s easy to detach ourselves from the ethical issues in the modern food chain, it’s important to recognize that worker exploitation isn’t just happening abroad or in developing countries. It occurs all over the world, including in developed nations.

For instance, in the United States, unfair labor practices disproportionately affect migrant workers. Nearly half of all U.S. agricultural workers are immigrants, and it’s estimated that more than a quarter of these employees are undocumented. People within these populations — especially those who aren’t authorized to work — may be unable or unwilling to report exploitation due to the difficulty of finding alternate careers, as well as the risk of deportation. As a result, it’s not uncommon for workers to face harsh conditions, like long days of manual labor in the sun.

Farmers are also at high risk for injuries, both fatal and non-fatal. Since employers aren’t necessarily required to provide safer farm equipment, like roll-over protective structures for tractors, many agricultural workers are constantly facing unsafe working conditions. Ethical companies must push for more protections and safety precautions for all workers in their supply chain, even if they’re not obligated to.

Health Concerns for Food Workers

Injuries aren’t the only risk for workers in the modern food chain. Employees may be threatened by illnesses, too. For instance, frequent pesticide exposure can lead to symptoms of varying severity, from minor skin irritations to dizziness, nausea, and convulsions. In rare but notable cases, it can also lead to death.

The positive of choosing organic foods is the lack of synthetic insecticide use in agricultural processes. By choosing more natural options, consumers can transform demand and push corporations toward human-friendly agricultural supplies and practices.

The air pollution from factory farms can also lead to lung impairments like chronic bronchitis and asthma. These issues don’t only impact works; they can also impact people in surrounding areas. This shows how far-reaching human rights issues in the modern food chain truly are. Continued support of unsustainable practices that are detrimental to human health can impact the very consumers that companies are selling to.

Due to this issue’s pervasiveness, ethical corporations don’t have to focus exclusively on improving their own practices. They can also work to help others impacted by these unsafe practices. This can include supporting responsible public health policies, lobbying local governments for more protections for both workers and their communities, or even conducting their own research about human rights or workers’ health.

Buying Local as an Ethical Choice

Buying local food products can be a great way to make sustainable choices that also respect human rights. A shorter supply chain reduces transportation and fossil fuel usage while making it easier to track labor practices. Depending on where you live, you may be able to purchase produce directly from the people who grew it at local farmer’s markets.

You don’t necessarily need to find certified fair trade or organic products when shopping from small businesses. Certifications, which require official inspections from the United States Department of Agriculture, can cost well over $1,000, which simply isn’t financially feasible or worth the trouble for many small farmers. It may seem counter-intuitive, but these uncertified farmers may be more ethical and sustainable than larger corporations.

Though your food may be certified organic and fair trade, the benefits of these purchases may be canceled out if you support a non-local organization. This is true whether you’re shopping in person or online. E-commerce is thought to be a sustainable alternative to in-person shopping, but it can still contribute to carbon emissions and wasteful packaging — even if the organization you purchase from claims to be environmentally friendly.

Make sure to investigate the practices of the organizations you’re ordering from. As a consumer, you can research the businesses you support online. For small businesses in your community, you may be able to reach out to the organization directly for more information. Ultimately, it’s crucial to understand how they treat both the environment and their employees, so you aren’t making environmentally-friendly purchases at the expense of workers’ well-being (or vice versa).

Human Rights Are a Necessity

A sustainable food supply chain and respected human rights go hand in hand. While many discussions about ethics in food and agriculture center on environmental impact, it’s also important to consider the treatment of workers throughout the supply chain. Too often, large corporations with lengthy supply chains contribute to the exploitation of workers — including children and immigrants — who have little choice but to comply with unsafe, harsh conditions.

By making small changes, like buying local or seeking transparent companies, anyone can shape demand for compliance with human rights. Companies themselves can also lead the way toward greater ethics by making investments to protect worker safety — for example, by buying safer machinery or by lobbying for statewide, nationwide, or even global worker protections.